Despite starting his new role as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools amid the omicron surge in COVID-19 cases and the accompanying complexities of keeping the school system running despite staffing issues, Dr. Justin Robertson said his transition into the job has been relatively smooth.
Robertson - who has been with the school district since 2008, most recently serving as its director of operations - was selected by the Hamilton County Board of Education to serve as superintendent by a 7-2 vote in December over two other candidates found through a nationwide search.
"I think he has hit the ground running, like we all kind of expected him to," said school board chair Tucker McClendon of East Ridge. "We've had a challenging month with COVID and whatnot, but he went in and has done the job that we all thought he would do when we voted for him."
Robertson said he's a firm believer in the district's strategic plan, Future Ready 2023, and intends to see that through in its final year and a half. At the same time, beginning this spring, he will lead the district in developing a new strategic plan as well.
Starting as superintendent in the middle of the year presents certain challenges, he said, including being thrown into the budgeting process in the next few weeks. That process will include some "organizational adjustments" that will be made public during his State of the System address later this month, he said.
"We've had a couple of organizational changes over the last three years, and so I think it's always important to kind of take stock of where you are as an organization and make sure you've got the right people in the right place and that the values that we have as a district are reflected in where we're putting our assets, and the majority of our budget goes to people and goes to talent," Robertson said in an interview.
Robertson and his wife are both from Chattanooga, where he began his career before moving to Memphis and working in Shelby County Schools. After moving back to Chattanooga in 2008, he served as assistant principal of Normal Park Upper School and then principal of Lookout Valley Elementary, Brown Middle and Red Bank High. He started at the central office in 2016, serving as the system's director of operations.
His 14-year-old daughter is an eighth-grader at Signal Mountain Middle/High School.
He said while most people assume being local is a huge advantage, it isn't always.
"Being local and having some context does help, but I think it also makes it challenging for us in terms of ensuring that we're open to new ideas, to ensuring that we're collaborating with those around us and that we're taking part in opportunities that will help us to develop innovative programming and really set our students up for success," Robertson said.
It's his experience serving in leadership roles at the elementary, middle and high school levels as well as dealing with the complexities of operations in the district's central office that he feels has helped him most as superintendent.
"I was lucky enough to serve in some very different types of schools - Lookout Valley being a very small, almost community school, and then Red Bank High School being a very diverse high school - the needs of each are so different," Robertson said. "That obviously helped me to have a good understanding of the trajectory of kids and how we help kids be successful. And if I didn't have the operations piece, I think this transition would have been much more difficult."
His years running a school system of 44,000 students, overseeing school buses that run 20,000 miles a day and maintaining 7.5 million square feet of building space gives him the knowledge of exactly who to call when any issues come up, he said, as they frequently do.
One of the main things he's focusing on now is early literacy, including working with partners in the city's early learning centers to help more kids across the county come to kindergarten prepared.
Another priority for Robertson is early post-secondary opportunities. While he feels the system has been successful in increasing those opportunities, he thinks there needs to be more of a focus on pathways that lead to solid careers or four-year universities.
"I think Hamilton County's headed in the right direction, and we recognize that for us to move forward and to continue to improve that we have to make adjustments and we can't continue to do the same thing," he said. "So I'm excited about the team that we're putting together and the commitment on their part to serve kids and to provide opportunities and access for each and every kid."
Contact Emily Crisman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6508.